by Margaret Murray
You might see Eric Jensen on his hands and knees at the corner of Harvard and Yale Avenues, determinedly pulling weeds from his garden plot. Weeds have been a challenge for the five years Jensen has had a plot in the community garden.
Now he has a successful counterattack. “I cover my plot with black plastic and poke holes for the plants, so there are no open rows and less space for weeds to grow,” Jensen explains. The perfect weed-prevention method took some experimenting. “One year I used a black cloth, but it was too porous and the weeds grew through it, pinning it to the ground. It was a total disaster!”
For Jensen, a Swarthmore resident and Swarthmore College astronomy professor, gardening has been a part of life since he was a kid growing up in New Hampton, Iowa. “My parents were avid gardeners, and since they were high school teachers we had a garden every summer. It was just part of life.”
The Swarthmore Community Gardening Program was started by the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore more than a decade ago. It offers Arboretum members a 10×12 foot plot in the garden for an annual fee of $25. Membership in the Arboretum is open to all, and the nontransferable plots are set up on a first-come, first-served basis. Plot owners, who are mostly Swarthmore residents, are expected to maintain their plots – control the weeds! – and cannot grow plants that are unruly, such as mint, or that may shade other plots, such as corn.
Jensen owns one of 23 plots in the community garden, and “several gardeners come back year after year and want the same plot,” says Jody Downer, Special Projects Coordinator at the Arboretum. Many own more than one plot so they can rotate crops to keep the soil healthy. But Downer assures that “the balance between gardeners and the number of plots is pretty even.”
Weed control isn’t the only thing Jensen has improved on over the years. Jensen switched up many types of plants he has in his gardens. “I’ve shifted to things that don’t need a lot of day-to-day attention, mostly tomatoes and squash,” he says. He also caters to what his children like to eat. “The kids weren’t big fans of turnips,” says Jensen, “but we eat a ton of green beans.”
“They’re adventurous eaters,” Jensen’s wife, Julie, says of sons Alex 13, and Tim 10. “They were able to try a lot of fresh veggies when they were young, so we’re lucky.” This openness to new food is also encouraged by the family’s yearly spring travels. This year the kids enjoyed tapas and calamari while in Barcelona, Spain. “Food is a big part of our travels,” Julie says. “It’s all about trying and experiencing new things. We want the kids to enjoy what we are enjoying, but also to find out what they’re into.”
Though Jensen admits he hasn’t made the boys work too much in the garden, he says they have some interest in what their dad does out there. “They’re used to having fresh veggies, but food doesn’t always come from a store – somebody has to grow it!” And Jensen is conscious about buying local food, visiting the Swarthmore Farmers Market on Saturday mornings.
Along with buying local, Jensen rarely drives the family Prius. Julie takes the train to work in the city, the boys walk to SRS, and Jensen bikes to the college, sometimes with a backpack to pick up groceries at the Coop. “When I am out in the car I’ll drop off a couple buckets of water so that I can just stop by later to water when I’m on my bike,” Jensen explains.
Water can present a problem for community garden plot owners, as they must provide their own. “It can be an out of sight, out of mind situation,” says Jensen. He has found a system that works for him, using water from his rain barrels at home.
“Gardening is Eric’s project. It’s more hands-on work than what he does in the classroom and he can see the immediate results,” Julie says of her husband’s passion. Jensen, who talks about gardening and plant varieties with his siblings and parents at family get-togethers, is excited about what this year’s garden plot may yield, and hopes to continue conquering the weeds. The power of growing his own food, reflective of the victory gardens that were popular during the first and second World Wars, keeps Jensen returning to the corner of Harvard and Yale year after year.